IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 2007, AND the citizens of Paris were pissed.
Cigarettes, which had already been banned in public places, would soon be forbidden in the city’s iconic cafés. And yet to David Edwards, a Harvard professor and biomedical engineer who lived part of the year in France, the mass frustration was something else: a source of inspiration.
Edwards had spent much of his career working on the development of aerosol medications, shrinking the size of drug particles to make inhalable remedies possible. But he was also a newly passionate foodie who’d become interested in molecular gastronomy, how chefs were using chemical engineering to alter food forms.
To Parisians, eating and smoking were basic human rights, the first rarely occurring without the second. That custom would be all but destroyed by the smoking ban, though, and that got Edwards thinking. What if you could replicate the Parisians’ post-meal ritual with something else, something that would meld culinary art and science, something that would be—unlike other beloved French vices—good for you?
What if he could, in fact, find a way to eat just by breathing?
RAISED NEAR DETROIT, EDWARDS studied chemical engineering at Michigan Tech and the Illinois Institute of Technology, before going on to positions at MIT, Penn State, and, since 2002, Harvard.
He is a scientist through and though, yet as a child he was most fascinated by literature and theater. He penned his first novel back in the fifth grade, and has shelves full of books written just for his own amusement, including a historical novel based in post-revolutionary France titled Bonaparte and Me.
In the fall of 2007, Edwards invested his own money (though Harvard helped, too) in creating Le Laboratoire, an “ideas lab” and cultural space in central Paris where artists and scientists would come together to “push the limits of understanding,” and invent accordingly. As Edwards saw it, science—relying as it did on the proven and the peer-accepted—could stand to take a page from the arts.
Located not far from the Louvre, Le Laboratoire has hosted exhibitions on the experience of a stem cell transforming into a neuron (a collaboration between French artist Fabrice Hyber and leading MIT scientist Robert Langer) and a mobile mini greenhouse that “renders plants more intelligent,” whatever that means, as envisioned by Edwards and French industrial designer Mathieu Lehanneur.
By 2008, though, Le Laboratoire had produced nothing of commercial value, even if Edwards’s hydrangeas had never looked better. “I’d invested time, my reputation, and, of course, my money in this project, and I had a deathly fear of it failing,” says Edwards, 48. He had to do something, and fast.
So Edwards approached Thierry Marx, an avant-garde chef whose interest in molecular gastronomy had led him to create dishes such as liquefied quiche and “virtual sausage.” Looking for new concepts—and always eager to enrage French traditionalists—Marx signed on, partnering with Edwards to reduce food to particle form.
They started with chocolate (because, well, who doesn’t like chocolate?) and soon perfected four varieties: plain chocolate, chocolate mint, chocolate mango, and chocolate raspberry. The actual science of making food inhalable wasn’t difficult: It turned out that aerosol technology was pretty much the same whether you were trying to deliver a tuberculosis vaccine or a tasty dessert. For the latter, though, it all came down to ensuring the particles were small enough to be airborne, but too big to enter the lungs and trigger coughing.
Back at Harvard, students in Edwards’s creative-engineering class had already worked on a means for delivering the particles, coming up with something similar to a traditional asthma inhaler. It was nearly identical in appearance to a tube of ChapStick. Instead of waxy lip balm, though, it would be filled with sweet, pure, breathable chocolate. Edwards called it Le Whif.